Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Innovation Gift Giving

We find ourselves near the end of another fruitful, eventful year, here at December 19, 2017.  All eyes turn toward the holidays (actually, the merchandising happened in October and the Christmas muzak started in early November it seems).  While there are a few working days left in the month, and year, I thought I'd offer up some ideas for those individuals who are hard to shop for on your lists.  Today, gifts for the frustrated corporate innovator.

The Frustrated Corporate Innovator
We all know one of these, and in some cases this may be you.  You've longed for the rights to create some really interesting new products and services.  You've noticed product gaps and market opportunities ripe for the plucking.  Yet the organization you or your friend works for is too conservative, too risk adverse or simply too focused on existing products and services to spend time innovating.  There are several gifts I can offer you:

  1. The gift of freedom.  If you honestly believe that the opportunity is out there, and that you have insights that no one else has, then give yourself the gift of freedom.  Go and solve that problem.  Alone or with a small team.  If your existing company or organization can't or won't see the opportunity, and you have passion for the need, don't wait.  Getting frustrated by the decision making processes and slow reaction times of larger corporations isn't the answer.  Give yourself the gift of freedom to pursue the opportunities you see.  This may mean switching teams or even leaving your company.
  2. The gift of success.  If the first option is too radical (like the crazy holiday sweaters you know the recipient won't wear) then how about this:  just do something radical within your organization with the resources you can cobble together.  Don't ask for permission, ask for forgiveness after your idea becomes a success.  Innovators can't afford to wait.  Trying to get everyone to consensus is an exercise in cat herding in a room full of rocking chairs.  Success is first its own reward, and second an opportunity to build on.  If you can't get approval for everything, give yourself approval to do something and build on the success.
  3. The gift of education.   There's always room in every budget for training or gaining new skills. After all, gaining new skills is important for personal growth and it's also probably a component of your annual review.  Identify new training or educational opportunities to learn new skills or new methods.  Enrich your own portfolio of innovation techniques, design thinking techniques, open innovation methods or a host of other capabilities.  Even if you don't get to actually implement the training, you'll add to your own resume.
  4. The gift of involvement and community.  There are a lot of interest groups and organizations that examine innovation and meet to discuss successes, failures and learnings.  Here in the Carolinas we meet regularly and once a year have an innovation conference focused on local innovators.  There are plenty of conferences and events, national and local, where you can meet with and discuss your ideas and what you want to get done.  Or, go help out a nascent entrepreneur or innovator who needs help getting a new idea off the ground.  Go meet some people who share your passion and can leverage your energy.
  5. The gift of a book.  When I was a kid, everyone wanted to give me books, when what I really wanted were footballs or baseball bats or fishing rods.  Now, everyone wants to give me sweaters and ties when what I really want are books.  Good books about innovation are perhaps one of the best gifts you can give yourself, or give to a potential innovator.  Here's a list of some of the books I recommend constantly (note some favoritism for a special author on the list)
    1. The Innovator's DNA - great book about some traits or characteristics of good innovators
    2. The Art of the Long View - good book on trend spotting and scenario planning
    3. Think Better by Tim Hurson
    4. Innovator's Dilemma
    5. Crossing the Chasm by Geoffrey Moore
    6. Relentless Innovation and/or Outmaneuver by yours truly
    7. Open Innovation by Chesbrough
    8. Creative Confidence by Tom Kelley
    9. Ten Types of Innovation by Larry Keeley
    10. Business Model Generation
    11. Blue Ocean Strategy
    12. 101 Design Methods
    13. Making innovation work
      There - a baker's dozen of good innovation books that make a great gift for yourself, your boss (good way to hint at opportunities), your team or someone you know.
  6. The gift of complacency and serenity.  When all else fails, or seems too bold, like wearing a sweater that lights up and plays football theme songs, then give yourself the gift of complacency.  Acknowledge that innovation is difficult, risky and fraught with danger and uncertainty, and simply allow yourself the peace of knowing that innovation is simply too much to take on.  Give yourself and your co-workers some peace and become the most efficient and effective worker you can be.  There's nothing wrong with doing things exceptionally well. Perhaps a gift of the Serenity prayer?
Regardless of what you give, or get this holiday season, make a new commitment going into the new year to do more, think more, advocate more, train more, commune more, read more, and risk more for innovation.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 7:57 AM 0 comments

Monday, December 11, 2017

Communication and repetition are vital for innovation

I was working out this morning before work and as usual, watching the breaking news.  At 7am there are a range of news choices, and strangely each network seems to have the exact same advertisements on during the breaks.  As I was working out I realized that I knew the side effects of several medications that I don't need and don't take.  These side effects include headaches, vomiting, and so on.  The reason I know these is because there seem to be five or six pharmaceutical commercials on heavy rotation.  Thankfully, based on both the conditions they promote and the side effects, I'm not using any of them.  But listening to the adverts and thinking about how much I'd heard about the various medications and their side effects got me thinking.

What if we innovators could create a regular, recurring, looping set of adverts for people in business, so that we were comfortable with the language and approach of unfamiliar methodologies and tools without ever knowing we'd gained the knowledge?  Can we create comfort with unusual techniques and tools by building confidence and awareness slowly over time?

Reach and Frequency

I've written before that good messaging requires both reach and frequency. If you want someone to remember your message, you've got to reach them frequently.  Psychology suggests that you need to hear a message 7 times in order to fully incorporate it in your thinking.  If we only talk about or do innovation in extreme circumstances or very rarely, and fail to communicate about the tools and methods otherwise, we can't indoctrinate people and make them feel comfortable with the tools and methods.  And when people feel uncomfortable with new tools or methods, they follow one of a few well-trodden paths:  1) they stall or stop progress until they do feel comfortable with new language and tools or 2) they simply ignore new tools and methods and revert to older, trusted tools and methods.

Reach, frequency and clear messaging about innovation is important, as my experience with medications I don't need or take demonstrates.  Having seen or heard these commercials for weeks or months as I work out in the morning, I could easily tell you which address specific illnesses or symptoms and even what some of the side effects could be.  Now, imagine that we could do the same thing with a positive force - innovation - that many cultures view as dangerous and disruptive.  How much more receptive and capable would the average employee be to innovation opportunities if the ideas, methods, processes, "rules" and other aspects of innovation were inculcated the way pharmaceutical drug commercials do for the average viewer?

Creating Innovation Commercials

It's not as if corporations lack the ability to "advertise" important information to their employees.  If anything the average corporate employee would probably claim to receive too much communication, which in reality is probably accurate since so much of it is poorly conceived and targeted.  It wouldn't be difficult to include some clear innovation oriented messaging, definitions, background and other messages within existing channels, and to reinforce these in every team meeting, quarterly result and so on.  And the more these messages are consistent, drilling in a specific definition or outcome, or reviewing a specific set of innovation tools, the more quickly these messages will be received and implemented.

Pharma companies use television, radio and print advertising because they know they need to reach many people in many channels, and they repeat the same basic messages over and over again because they recognize it takes many interactions with the same messages to change the way people think.  If they can convince their consumers to acquire and use drugs with the list of side effects that is always listed in the ad, then certainly corporations can build credibility and confidence in innovation methods, skills and tools by using the same communication devices.

I look forward to the day I walk into a large corporation and see an "ad" streaming for innovation tools, which describes how the tool is useful and the positive side effects of actually trying to innovate.  Physicians follow an important oath,  the Hippocratic oath often shortened to "Do no harm".  As innovators our philosophyshould be "Instruct thyself and others".  The difference is our side effects are almost always positive.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 5:52 AM 0 comments

Wednesday, December 06, 2017

Quirky: Traits innovators share

Thanks to my blog, and hopefully the insights I share here, I'm often asked to review books about innovation and innovators.  Recently I was asked to review a book entitled Quirky.  The subtitle is:  The Remarkable Story of the Traits, Foibles, and Genius of Breakthrough Innovators Who Changed the World.  Their capitalization, not mine.

The traits that innovators possess or share has been an interest of mine for quite a while.  I researched this topic for years, reading academic papers, books and doing our own research to identify traits or characteristics that innovators have in common, so you can imagine this book was of interest to me.

Quirky is as quirky does

Melissa Schilling, who is a professor at NYU, took an interesting approach when writing this book.  She focused on just a handful of breakthrough innovators, going deeply into their development and lives.  This deep dive presents some interesting data, but since the population of innovators is small and, to say the least a bit strange in its selection, I wonder if everything she reports is definitive.

Schilling selects her breakthrough innovators across history, including Madame Curie, Edison, Benjamin Franklin, Tesla, Einstein, Elon Musk and of course Steve Jobs.   These are, without a doubt, important innovators and very quirkly people.  To my way of thinking this is a very expansive group, with very different innovation goals and outcomes.  Several of these never commercialized a product; they created scientific insights.  Some were very mercenary - they only wanted to create things that had value to customers.  Some were serial innovators across a wide spectrum of industries, some were deep thinkers in one specific setting.  While all of these are recognizable innovators, I wonder if the sample size is really large enough - or perhaps too diverse in a small sample - to draw conclusions.

Schilling looks for similarities across these innovators, and to no surprise finds many.  They are all self-starters, many are autodidacts, bored with day to day stuff and constantly seeking new solution.  They are passionate about their work, they have visions about better solutions.  They work till they drop and expect others to do the same.  They are almost separate from the people they live and work with.  They were extremely sure of their own insights, rarely doubting themselves.  Most were consummate outsiders.  These findings, of themselves, are interesting but not particularly new.  Clayton Christensen and others wrote about 5 traits they noticed in corporate innovators in the book The Innovator's DNA.  Others have noted that most innovators are motivated by intrinsic issues, which fuels their passion.  Anyone who has attempted to create a new product knows the struggles a new idea faces in becoming a new product or service, so passion and stubbornness are almost a job requirement for innovators.

Positives and Concerns

The book does a good job identifying and calling out some of the core traits that innovators often share.  It does this by digging deeply into the lives of the handful of innovators Schilling profiles.  In many chapters the history and backstory of a selected innovator takes up close to half the chapter.  I learned more about Tesla and Curie than I had known, and gained new insights into Jobs' early career.  This research depth is good but detracts from getting on with the points the author wants to make.

There are really seven attributes that Schilling identifies:
  1. Sense of Separateness
  2. Extreme Confidence
  3. Creativity
  4. Higher purpose
  5. Driven to Work
  6. Opportunities in the era
  7. Access to resources
But these aren't all given the same attention.  The separateness, confidence and creativity chapters are long and involved.  Toward the latter half of the book the traits aren't nearly as fleshed out and don't really illuminate the key topic as well as earlier chapters do.

While the research is evident, Schilling is often drawing conclusions or making observations with very limited data and the qualitative nature of the research shows.  In one long paragraph about separateness she uses the word "may" five or six times when showing how separateness contributes to innovation.  Suggestive but not definitive.  And she either ignored or didn't validate some traits that the innovators themselves identified.  For example, Jobs is famous for describing his approach to innovating based on "beginner's mind" - looking at a problem with fresh eyes.

Some of her research and findings conflict with other research, demonstrating how poorly defined and understood innovation is.  She focuses a lot on separateness, noting that "solitude is valuable for creativity" but often fails to note how involved and collaborative much of this work is.  Using Edison as an example for isolation is a bit much - he worked constantly with a large team, many of the "muckers" from his lab (Batchelor, Upton and others) named in the book.

The upshot

This is a good book, worth your time if only for the detailed histories of some very interesting people (Tesla alone is worth the read).  Schilling does a good job identifying some of the characteristics that this handful of innovators shared but doesn't fully prove that these are all necessary or that there aren't other attributes that are just as vital.  This is a book that was clearly carefully researched - the extensive footnotes prove that - but it seems to ignore or overlook some of the good work on innovator characteristics and traits that have been published before.

In short there's not a lot "new" here, but a good encapsulation of some of the traits innovators share and why they matter.

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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 6:58 AM 0 comments

Tuesday, December 05, 2017

Taking the path of most resistance

I was thinking today about one of my favorite books - The Razor's Edge by Somerset Maugham - and the quote from the book that forms the title.  I won't bore you with a rehash, except to say that the main character is told that "the path to salvation is as narrow and difficult to walk as a razor's edge".  This from a Buddhist monk the main character, Larry, meets during his journey to find himself and his purpose not long after the end of the first World War.

One of the things we are constantly taught is to find the path of least resistance - the well-defined, well-trodden path that others have taken.  This is the safest, most secure path.  The one that is easiest to travel, has the least amount of risk.  The path is known, secure and goes to a specific destination.  This is the path most of us walk every day.  The only problem is that there isn't anything new on the path.  You don't explore anything new, discover anything new.  You aren't confronted by anything new.  Plenty of people go along with you to explain the path to you and keep you safely in the path.

As you might guess, the path of least resistance is easy to walk, and has little to offer in the way of innovation.  If you want to innovate, you must leave the proven path, take the path of some or most resistance.  Because it's in the exploration and discovery, going where others haven't gone, that you'll learn new things, uncover new issues or challenges, find new opportunities or solutions.

There are several components to walking any path that we must consider here:  the path itself, the people on the path, the "off-piste" that defines the area outside the path.

The Path

While much of this post has been a meditation on "paths" and their purposes, we all live and work in stable, defined paths or processes.  We go to work, follow established and documented processes and procedures, identify and achieve short term milestones and go home.  The next day we do it all again.  These are well-worn, well-described paths that are necessary for effective and efficient operations.  Efficient processes and pathways must exist for a company to scale and operate efficiently.  The problem is that the paths and processes become barriers to thinking and exploration rather than enablers - things that were meant to get you places become things that bar you from new places.  Soon, people are improving the paths and processes, grading them and paving them for even more ease of use, which encourages more alignment and less discovery and exploration.  Soon it becomes difficult and expensive to leave a path or process, and one fraught with risk and the potential of ridicule. 

As hackneyed as the quote is, Frost is right: "I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference".

If you are going to innovate, you need to pioneer your own paths.  Sometimes you'll have a specific destination in mind, sometimes you'll simply go exploring.  But either way, you've got to get out of the existing wheel ruts, pathways and guardrails to go into the untamed areas of your business or industry.  You cannot innovate from within the safe confines of your existing paths and processes.

The people on the path

What's important to understand is that there will be two kinds of people you'll encounter on the path:  those who want to reinforce the importance of the path, and those who are interested in leading you off the path.  Those who want to reinforce the path we call "management".  Management is paid to ensure that a company gets the most from the least amount of resources, that the company is highly predictable and eliminates variability.  This means sticking to the path, and ensuring everyone sticks to the path.  Managers find people who are wandering from the path and bring them back to the path. They enforce focus and attention on the next milestones on the path.

You'll meet a few people on the path who aren't so interested in the path but who are interested in the journey.  These are discoverers and explorers, who are interested and comfortable leaving the path, no matter what the consequences.  They are rare in corporations and are usually outside the mainstream, typically a unit of one, who are allowed to roam and discover because they've proved their value, but they very rarely scale.  Unless you have a thick skin and are dedicated to leaving the path to fully embrace exploration and discovery, you want to ignore these people and never become one.

If you are going to innovate, you must ignore the people who define and maintain the existing paths and processes - which is exceptionally difficult to do within a corporation - and define your own paths and processes, discover your own destinations, experiment and explore as you see fit.  This is remarkably easier to do than it seems, if at first you learn to ignore all the concerns and constraints and just start doing it.  As Arthur Dent learns in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Universe, the trick to flying is  "..The knack lies in learning how to throw yourself at the ground and miss..."

Going Off-piste

The French have a lovely word for the area outside of the safe path - off-piste.  It means the areas in a ski slope off of the groomed slope.  Off-piste is uneven, ungroomed, slightly dangerous.  There are few other tracks.  A fall in the off-piste area can lead to greater injury.  Skiing on the off-piste also means more fresh powder, more exciting experiences, more exploration and discovery.  Going off-piste has uncertainties and risks, but going with the right attitude and perhaps a guide can lead to remarkable discoveries.

If you want to innovate, you need to go "off-piste".  Following the safe and practical pathways and processes within your business or industry will only lead to at best incremental change.  To make any new discoveries, to create anything truly new and interesting, you need to leave the path of least resistance and go off-piste.

What does it mean to go off-piste?  When skiing it means more danger, fewer maps, greater risk of falling but in many cases more exhilaration.   When innovating it means leaving the company or industry constraints behind, going exploring without a set destination, learning new things, assimilating new discoveries.  It will mean new work and new experiences that when synthesized may not perfectly fit into the existing way of doing business.  Which is why the path of most resistance is pursued so rarely.  It takes an engaged, dedicated, creative individual or team to go off-piste, and a company ready to embrace novelty and change to accept what the team brings back.

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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 10:41 AM 0 comments